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The difficult realities of lethal force

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The shooting of teenager Makhia Bryant in Columbia produced a torrent of objections to how police respond to armed suspects. Host Joy Reid and others simply declare that the use of lethal force to stop a knife attack is murder. Joy Behar thinks officers who come upon someone about to knife another person should shoot into the air as a warning. President Biden has said that officers should shoot armed suspects in the leg.

But there is a reason why police manuals do not say “aim for the leg” or “try to shoot the weapon out of the hand.” It is called imminent harm, the governing standard for all police shootings. The fact that many describe such shootings as “justified” is not to belittle these tragedies but to realize the actual exigencies that control the use of lethal force.

In the slow motion videos of shootings played on the news, there often seems to be endless opportunities to reduce escalation or alternatives to lethal force. None of us want to hear of the loss of another young person like Bryant. But the suggestion of Biden that “instead of anybody coming at you and the first thing you do is shoot to kill, you shoot them in the leg” is not exactly how it works in the practical or legal sense.

When officers use lethal force, it is meant to neutralize the threat, not to kill someone. They are trained to fire for the center of the body because it minimizes the chances of a miss and maximizes the chances to neutralize the suspect. Shooting for the hand or leg or weapon can endanger others and may not neutralize a suspect. Likewise, officers are not trained to use nonlethal force, like a taser, to stop a lethal attack. Tasers are sometimes ineffective to neutralize suspects. If there is an imminent threat of lethal force, police officers use lethal force to stop that threat.

These dangers were evident in 2019 when Aaron Hong ran at police with a large knife while officers literally begged him to drop the knife and even moved back. Hong lurched at an officer who fired seven rounds. Despite the close proximity and aiming for the body, most of the shots appear to have missed, but Hong was hit at least once. He then got up despite his wound, ran at another officer and was grabbing his weapon when a third officer fired four more rounds. Having Biden shout from the sideline to “shoot for the leg!” would simply not have helped here.

The key is the legal threshold for the use of lethal force. The Columbus police manual states, “Sworn personnel may use deadly force when the involved personnel have reason to believe the response is objectively reasonable to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of death or serious physical harm.” That language is taken from Tennessee versus Edward Garner and other Supreme Court cases.

Though Valerie Jarrett, a former White House aide to President Obama, insisted that police do not need guns “in order to break up a knife fight,” the person about to be stabbed may see the matter as a tad more urgent. Though the officer could have waited while calling for Bryant to drop the knife, the other girl might be dead today, and her family might object to the failure of the officer to protect her from imminent harm.

The use of lethal force is justified only when the threat of death or serious bodily harm is imminent. Even if trick shooting or firing at the limbs were feasible, an imminent threat must be neutralized without delay. In the case of the Bryant shooting, police were told that one individual was trying to stab someone. Officer Nicholas Reardon was faced with Bryant charging at another girl with a knife. She was in close proximity to the other girl and swinging the knife toward her when he fired four times. It was a justified shooting under the standards for the use of lethal force.

A similar scene unfolded recently in Knoxville. Police confronted teenager Anthony Thompson in a bathroom stall after being called by his girlfriend with a domestic abuse claim. When they tried to handcuff Thompson, he reached for a gun in his hoodie. It discharged and officers thought he was firing on them. They shot and killed him. Even with such a close proximity and shooting for the center of the body, some shots apparently missed and hit another officer. Indeed, in the violent frenzy, the officers thought their wounded colleague had been shot by Thompson.

I have both sued and defended law enforcement officers. They work in a violent and unpredictable environment that few of us ever experience. These scenes are driven by adrenaline in chaotic moments that often allow few seconds for critical decisions. Even with extensive training, officers can still shoot each other or bystanders in a flash.

Yet on some cable networks, hosts and guests insist that Reardon could have waited and that knife fights are common with teenagers. Professor Brittany Cooper declared that “no black person is truly going to be safe if we cannot be having a bad day, if we cannot defend ourselves when we think we are gonna get jumped.” Of course, most people who police meet are having a bad day, which is why the police are called.

Lethal force is used in only a small fraction of these encounters. Studies show the vast majority of the some 1,000 civilians shot each year were armed or otherwise dangerous. According to the Washington Post, for 2019, police shot and killed 55 unarmed persons, including 25 white and 14 black individuals. That does not mean racism is not a serious problem in shootings. However, the debate on lethal force standards will achieve little unless we discuss the realities of violent encounters.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

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